Dr. Bandy X. Lee was interviewed by Prof. Johanna Fernández, author of The Young Lords: A Radical History (UNC Press, 2020), a history of the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party. She is the editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal (City Lights, 2015) and with Abu-Jamal a special issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, titled The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor(Routledge, 2014). She teaches 20th Century U.S. history and the history of social movements at Baruch College (CUNY) and hosts "A New Day" on WBAI. She interviewed Dr. Lee, forensic psychiatrist and author of Profile of a Nation, for her "Race, Class, and Revolution" class at MayDay Space in New York. This is a two-part series. The first part of the interview series can be read here.
Where does politics begin and psychiatry end in assessing social problems?
As you know, we just experienced hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths, the near-loss of our democracy, and traumatization of a nation as a result of a president's mental unfitness, and so we cannot say the two areas are always separate. If the psychological dangers and unfitness were addressed earlier on, as would have been routine for any other job, we may have avoided these predictable consequences. Mental health issues do not stop at the political realm, and a high political office does not make one immune from mental problems.
At the same time, just as political matters should not be labeled as psychiatric, psychiatric issues should not be labeled as political. Politicians are supposed to consult with experts in areas that exceed their ability to handle—and not pretend that it is politics as usual—just as mental health experts should not comment on areas outside their expertise. Mislabeling can lead to catastrophes, as we have seen under Donald Trump, when glaring psychological problems were interpreted as political strategy or "3-D chess."
We associate Nazism or Stalinism with certain countries, while portraying Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, or Pol Pot as such exceptional "monsters" that they would never be replicated on our soil, when the psychological characteristics they display are quite common—and it was handing them power that was exceptional. If we fail to understand the personality types that relentlessly seek but cannot handle power, which transforms them into grotesque megalomaniacs who run their countries to the ground, we will forever be vulnerable to them. We need to engage those who are best poised to detect these signs early, before they entrench themselves in the political structure, and that would be mental health experts.
Didn't Barack Obama deploy more structural violence against immigrants than all previous American presidents? Why not focus on this? Isn't talk about sociopathy a distraction from the real problems?
Absolutely, we need to consider the larger context—but the two are interlinked. When present, we need to point out elements of pathology in the culture that push individuals into violence, even when they may not have initially been inclined. George W. Bush might be another example of someone who was not a dangerous personality, but he was used for dangerous purposes. When I was asked to comment on the Iraq War at the World Economic Forum, I focused not on him but on our nation as suffering from a "narcissistic personality disorder" writ large. I called out Donald Trump because he is a dangerous personality, but he was simultaneously also the personification and instrument of a dangerous culture. People have asked me to comment on Joe Biden, but I have not, since he exhibits no concerning signs of relevance to doing his job, although whether he can refrain from the pressures of our violent military-industrial complex remains to be seen.
How is it helpful to discuss disorder, whether in an individual or in a society? Disorder by definition leads to destruction, no matter the stated intentions, whereas healthy, rational, and well-informed choices are always life-affirming, occasional human errors or accidents notwithstanding. Disorders can be more pernicious than criminality alone, since simple criminality at least benefits the self. It is when criminal-mindedness combines with pathology that all manner of atrocities become possible, for even the actor who is supposedly "benefiting" will eventually destroy oneself.
Prevention is critical, since, once pathology spreads, the ability to recognize that something is wrong is gone, too. This is where mental health professionals have an important role, for we have an independent duty to warn authorities and the public, as part of our responsibility to society, if the relevant people are not recognizing the dangers. One of the reasons why the American Psychiatric Association's silencing of mental health experts under the Trump administration was so alarming was because it stripped the public of its one defense against victimization—and this was after it looked the other way throughout Barack Obama's presidency when psychiatrists were constantly diagnosing him incorrectly with "narcissistic personality disorder" on Fox News. It also said nothing about those who incorrectly diagnosed Trump—as long as the diagnosis was favorable. It only aggressively shut down conscientious mental health professionals who were not unethically diagnosing but responsibly alerting about the dangers, since we were inconvenient to a dangerous government.
Recently there have been individuals who have been very destructive in social movement organizations locally. Some believe these individuals are on the NPD spectrum. How should we address these problems in social movements?
There is an epidemic of narcissistic and sociopathic personalities in our culture, even more disproportionately in leadership positions. This is a ubiquitous problem that is compromising organizational goals, hurting associates, and harming society. While psychological issues are understandably a difficult topic in the social movement world, where we often believe we ought to focus on social and economic problems and not make "ad hominem attacks," we must recognize this is a real problem. We need to be informed, recognize red flags, and set boundaries for our daily protection.
Why is it so difficult to address these issues in our organizations internally?
First, the most dangerous personalities disguise themselves so well that an early scholar called the condition a "mask of sanity." Even if you recognized them, they are intimidating, and so you end up coddling and protecting them, rather than exposing or holding them accountable, especially if you wish to avoid their cruelty, wrath, and vindictiveness. We need systematic provisions against them, both in government as well as in private organizations.
What is the value of psychiatry, despite its politics?
Politics, media companies, and corporations are making use of psychological knowledge more than ever to control people's behavior for profit. Citizens would do well to educate themselves, and mental health professionals to share their knowledge with the public, not just to serve the wealth and power that hire them. The CIA, the FBI, and the courts all make use of psychiatrist evaluations, most of the time without personal interviews, and the public should not be deprived of psychiatric assessments, especially when a nation's own president is posing a danger—which is arguably even greater than that of a foreign leader.
Follow Dr. Lee at bandylee.com.